Once among the Pitt Rivers Museum’s most sought-after exhibits, the Shuar Tsantsas – the museum's collection of shrunken heads – will no longer be on display when the Oxford institution reopens to visitors next week after a six-month closure.
The Tsantsas, which could previously be seen in a case called “Treatment of Dead Enemies”, are some of the 120 human remains that have been removed from the exhibition floor following a three-year ethical review of the museum’s displays and programming. The institution says its work was accelerated by the “unique opportunity” that lockdown provided to rethink the displays.
The shrunken heads are considered sacred by the Shuar and Achuar peoples of Ecuador, who say their ancestors sold them to Western collectors without fully realising the implications. They are formed of human, monkey and sloth heads, although some are thought to be forgeries created using remains stolen from morgues.
The display case now contains an installation on the museum’s work toward restitution of the remains and an explanation of why the objects were taken off display.
In addition to the Tsantsas, the museum has also removed South Asian Naga trophy heads and the Egyptian mummy of a child from open display. It says it will actively reach out to descendant communities over the next few years to find out the most appropriate way to care for the 2,800 human remains it holds – including repatriation if requested.
Pitt Rivers director Laura Van Broekhoven said: “Our audience research has shown that visitors often saw the museum’s displays of human remains as a testament to other cultures being ‘savage’, ‘primitive’ or ‘gruesome’.
“Rather than enabling our visitors to reach a deeper understanding of each other’s ways of being, the displays reinforced racist and stereotypical thinking that goes against the museum’s values today. The removal of the human remains also brings us in line with sector guidelines and code of ethics.”
As part of the ethical review, the museum has also made changes to displays that feature derogatory language in their historic case labels or that play up “primitive” or “savage” colonial stereotypes of indigenous cultures.
Ahead of its reopening on 22 September, the museum has installed new interpretation on site to give visitors greater insight into the way its collections were formed.
Displays now explain how some of the museum's historic labels "obscure a deeper understanding of other cultures" and can reinforce racism and stereotypes. New labels and corresponding films and podcasts have been introduced to offer "more engaging, moving and multi-faceted stories", told through the voices of artists and indigenous communities.
“The implementation of the review is part of the museum’s strategic plan to bring its public facing-spaces more in line with its contemporary ethos of actively working with communities and respecting different ways of being as we become a welcoming space for all,” said Van Broekhaven.
The 19th-century museum, known for its complex colonial history, is currently undertaking one of the most comprehensive decolonisation programmes in the UK sector to date, with the intention of reinventing itself as an “anti-racist institution”. It recently published new procedures for the return of cultural objects taken during the colonial era.
The Pitt Rivers Museum will feature in an article on repatriation in the November/December issue of Museums Journal.
Want to learn more about decolonisation practice? See our new Decolonising Museums campaign section